Returning from the Second World War, my grandfather found a job in a pulp and paper mill near his childhood home in southern Arkansas. He worked at the mill well into my adolescent years, but I never visited the place. He was not, then, much of a talker. His silence was one of desperation, not of temperament; he was broken, perhaps, by the war—silent by nerves. His weakness, his life in a demeaning marriage to a disparaging, bitter woman shaped my father. This shell-shocked inheritance presses (even now) like a bruise into the mental circuitry of four generations.
My siblings and I were never alone with what was left of the man. In fact, though he was rumored to be a war hero, though he kept a job for many decades and was a blue-collar supervisor of some sort, he held little or no authority in the family. We, his grandchildren, did not treat him as a peer, but he was neither paternal nor fraternal; like us, however, he was (in “his” house) a dependent.
The paper mill I never visited, the paper mill my grandfather couldn’t (wouldn’t?) describe is gone now. It resides, if at all, as it has all my life, in the imagination—a great dark room of vaguely lumbering machinery, vats of pulp, and vast cylinders pressing pine into white, meter width and heavy rolls. Presumably, these rolls were unwound from the thick cardboard tubes at their centers. I envision (again) the paper steamed, pressed and cut to standard, market size. At some point the machinery, or the factory line, lost efficiency and the diminished rolls were removed from the rotors. What was left on the cardboard tubes was a few inches of bleached, butcher-weight paper. I do not know what became of most of these, but we always had one in our house. A couple of times every year my father’s parents would pull a large car into the gravel driveway of our Kentucky farm. The whole family would gather to unload a trunk load of canned goods, raw peanuts, used clothing, and a big roll of paper—meter after meter for pencil and crayon. Everything carried the reek of southern Arkansas—pine needles and heat, the dust of a raked yard, a little house on concrete blocks, a leaky gas stove, and (most of all) the pulp mill’s sulfur and cellulose.
I imagine the man working, nameless, faceless, silent in the great pressure house. These paper rolls once served as a bridge, artifacts of a place and time just beyond reach. Material comfort of a life lived possibly whole.